January 3, 2011 at 4:21 pm

CES 2011: Car Dashboards Control Smartphone Apps — Especially Pandora

With the rest of the tech media, Evolver.fm is ramping up for the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week and so far, one thing is clear: In addition to a proliferation of Windows 7 and Android tablets, we’ll see a heavy emphasis on music apps playing over car stereos.

The twist: smartphone apps that you can control with buttons and dials on the steering wheel and dashboard.

Ford, a pioneer in this area with its Sync in-dash computing platform, recently launched a new feature called AppLink that lets the drivers of Ford and Lincoln models equipped with the system to control their smartphone apps with the Sync’s voice commands — a surprisingly commonly-used feature of the Sync system, according to the company. And even before that, Ford Sync let users control apps such as Pandora with steering wheel and dashboard buttons.

We expect a number of companies to follow Ford’s and Pandora’s lead announcing music apps that work with cars and other hardware, and know of a couple of instances we can’t divulge yet. So far, in-dash systems are generally relying on music apps within the smartphone to handle the functionality and connectivity, while migrating controls to the car dashboard — an elegant, safe solution that doesn’t require the user to install another app or subscribe to another wireless plan in order to listen in the car.

Still, users on limited mobile data plans will need to take care, as always when streaming audio, not to exceed their mobile bandwidth.

A Pandora spokeswoman told Evolver.fm that Pandora plans to announce a number of device partnershops at the Consumer Electronics Show. It won’t be the only music app to make hardware inroads this year, but it certainly is proliferating widely even before the official announcements. For instance, CES organizer the Consumer Electronics Association’s Twice reported that Kenwood will unveil a line of nine Pandora-capable car stereos at this year’s event, joining Alpine and Pioneer, which began offering that feature at last year’s event:

Kenwood will offer the feature in all five of its new in-dash multimedia/nav systems, in two upper end CD-receivers, and in its two mech-less digital media receivers (DMRs), which lack CD player but connect to a wide variety of alternate music sources. The head units will control the features of a Pandora app loaded onto a USB-connected iPhone.

As for me, I’m looking forward to covering CES for perhaps the tenth time — this time with a focus on music apps and the hardware that lets you access them. Obviously, this year’s CES hasn’t happened yet, so it’s too early to predict the extent to which music apps will colonize the car and the living room this year. Nonetheless, early signs look promising that apps will continue to migrate from the smartphone to other parts of our lives.

Significantly, most of these early in-car music apps run on the phone, making your choice of device in that area even more important. Not only will that decision — and the associated wireless data plan — affect how you can place calls and access information, but it will also increasingly dictate your music listening options in the car.

In other words, choose that smartphone wisely!

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Photo of ‘Back to the Future’ Delorean courtesy of Flickr/popculturegeek